Queen for a day? For anyone who's ever dreamed of living 18th century French court life — like the one deliciously depicted in Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette — the fantasy is now a reality. Fulfilling the dream is the newly opened Le Grand Controle hotel, which sits two doors down from the famous gilded palace and is an official property of Versailles. It's the first hotel to reside on the grounds of France's best-known residence.
The property, which opened June 2021, is run by Airelles, the five-star luxury hospitality group, which also includes intimate properties across France in Saint Tropez, Courchevel, Val d'Isère, and Gordes. The two buildings that make up the newly opened property were empty for 20 years and last served as an officer's club. In near total disrepair, the military returned the property to Versailles in 2016. The Chateau held a competition between hotel groups and investors aiming to win the right to develop and restore the leaky-roofed dwelling.
With a rich, storied history, the project was one of the juiciest to land. Originally made for the duke of Beauvillier in 1681, it was designed by Jules Hardouin Mansart, the same gentleman Louis XIV plucked to transform Versailles from a simple hunting lodge into the magnificent, gilded palace. In 1723, the buildings officially became the Ministry of Finance under Louis XV. Here the taxes were assessed and collected. The last and most famous king's tax collector was Jacques Necker, who held the post off and on from 1776 until being ousted at the onset of the French Revolution. A corridor remains, now blocked off, that led the finance ministers directly to the king at Versailles.
According to Julien Révah, general manager of Le Grand Contrôle, while small compared to other hotel conglomerates, Airelles had a big idea. "We competed against much bigger groups such as Hilton, Accor, Marriott and won," he tells TZR, adding, "We think it's because our proposal was a restitution to the original decor versus something totally modern." The development marks the first time a Versailles-owned property has been leased for public use by a private company.
The result is not just a spectacular 14-room hotel dressed to the nines in circa 1788 decor but the experiences to match. Upon arrival, guests are assigned a butler who will cater to needs during the stay and school guests on the rich history of the hotel, chateau, and grounds. Not much for history lessons? Take an early morning jog or walk in the pristine greenspace hours before guests visiting the chateau are permitted entry.
But gardens aren't the only pleasure. Anyone who's ever visited Versailles during tourist season knows the main house tour can be as pleasant as a Grand Central bound 6 train during rush hour. Lucky guests of Le Grand Contrôle can peruse the palace, including the famous Hall of Mirrors, after official closing times in solitude away from the throngs.
Whitney Robinson, CEO of DW Northstar, a real estate development and design consulting firm, and former editor-in-chief of Elle Décor, knows this firsthand. He visited the property recently with his husband, Marc Karimzadeh of the CFDA, upon recommendation from famous chef and colleague Alain Ducasse, who orchestrates the restaurant on the property. "Having exclusive access to the L'Orangerie and chateau, especially the Hall of Mirrors with no one but my husband and me is unrivaled," he says to TZR, noting the unique hospitality experience. "It makes you feel like you are in 1721, not 2021."
This is especially true for the Ducasse-level standards of the candlelit dinners. "It's designed as theater, a fully immersive, transportive hospitality experience but that's executed in a very authentic, professional, and detailed way," Robinson continues.
The staff uniforms reflect traditional 18th century garb; men wear brocade waistcoats, vests, knickers, and tights, while female servers wear a corseted jacket and bustle skirt, adapted for modern use. It's done in a tasteful manner that doesn't evoke Disney kitsch. Guests can join in the fun as well, explains Révah.
"We get a lot of requests for themed costume parties such as Marie Antoinette Day. We propose dress choices and provide 18th century style hair and makeup with a photographer to capture it all. People love this idea."
Of course, weddings requests are already pouring in for the venue, which can seat 60 for dinner or host cocktails for 100. "We have had a Russian oligarch buy out the property for two days. An American family having a wedding near Versailles has also reserved the property for two days,” says Révah.
Not sure what to do for New Year's Eve 2022? Le Grand Contrôle is hosting an 18th century masked ball complete with a feast, but even utilizing the covered outdoor pergola on the patio, space is limited, so book early for a chance to ring in the new year the old French way.
Parties and private tours aside, there are certainly other ways to enjoy Le Grand Contrôle. A Valmont Spa awaits those wishing to be pampered like a royal in the buildings' lower level. A modern, 21st century pool is set in a brick-walled room juxtaposed by poolside loungers hinting at Louis XVI style. In all the hotel's common areas, decadent fruit bowls and platters of macarons are offered to guests.
The pool and the rest of the building benefit from a geothermal heating system that gives Le Grand Contrôle some of its eco-conscious props. All the food waste is composted, and candlelit dinners certainly use less electricity than lightbulbs.
Most impressive is the hotel’s upcycling. More than 900 antiques were sourced, authenticated by Versailles’ curators, and refurbished for the hotel.
The decor is based on a palace inventory record found in the Versailles archives. Thus, the architects and interior designers knew the layout and what pieces to source down to the tapestries on the walls. "The restitution of the decor was related to what was at the palace in 1788 to be precise, just before the French Revolution," confirms Révah adding, "We knew who the suppliers were and looked for those names."
For instance, a chair made by the famous cabinetmaker Jean Baptiste Boulard, who held the Royal Warrant under King Louis XVI, has been restored in lush forest green velvet and sits in the former audience room, just off the lobby. "The same 300-year-old chair style is in the palace, but you cannot sit on it. Here you can because we restored it," Révah adds. Robinson was equally awed. "The antiques are amazing. The whole place makes you feel as if you have been given the secret keys to an apartment at Versailles — like Night at the Museum," he says.
The feeling extends to the seven suites and seven rooms, each uniquely decorated. As one of the best rooms, the Suite Necker is mainly inspired by Suzanne Necker, Jacques’ wife, known for her eclectic salons where enlightenment philosophers and thinkers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot debated and discussed society. In a fresh floral and pink and white stripe color palette, the 1,400 square-foot one-bedroom apartment boasts a bathroom with a clawfoot bathtub overlooking the gardens.
The hotel subtly encourages guests to slow down and live like an 18th century citizen. The rooms lack televisions and fixed room phones. Instead, discreetly placed within a leather box, is an iPad with TV functions and hotel directory, an iPhone as a room phone, and a portable speaker in case you are in the mood to listen to something other than the 18th century classical music that plays throughout the day or the 17th century Baroque music that sets the dinner tone.
The dining room at Le Grand Contrôle takes its cues from Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon with wall sconces directly inspired by ones gracing the young queen's preferred residence. Painted in a pale blue shade popular in Versailles, the three separate rooms used to be the main offices for the finance minister and his assistants. The original floor, wall moldings, and mirrors survived in the middle room and adjacent floors were recreated to match. Original marble fireplace mantles were also preserved throughout.
The small private dining room leads to the gate to enter the L'Orangerie with a view of the 100-step staircases leading to Versailles’ manicured gardens. Pierre Frey Aubusson tapestry-inspired rugs, official Versailles reproduction Louis Philippe style plates along with various portraits of Marie Antoinette and French school landscape paintings, set the stage for Ducasse's feasts.
And feast ye shall. The lunch offering is either a three- or five-course degustation menu. Canapes, amuse-bouche, and king's bread are served before the appetizer course, such as langoustines with sorrel or foie gras with barley, apple, and verbena. Meat dishes arrive in silver-domed platters sliced tableside by servers. Cheese is cut from blocks from a cart as well. Chocolate lovers will revel in the signature 1724 dessert tart with gold leaf and praline sauce in the shape of a 12-petal flower.
Les Cent Marches is the fixed menu royal feast at night with two wine pairing options available to complete the experience. Be sure to fast and skip the free macarons to prepare for this dinner. Appetizers come in triple and include eggs with caviar and lobster aspic followed by a fish course, meat course, and three sides. No need to ponder a difficult desert choice; this meal comes with three: honey made on the grounds of Versailles, figs and cheese, and the must-have chocolate tart.
The after-hours tours may come in handy to walk off this dinner. Others may choose to relax and soak in the history of the building where Benjamin Franklin negotiated Revolutionary War funding support through Necker. (Fun fact: The War Ministry building across the street houses a copy of the original Declaration of Independence sent to France immediately after Congress approved the yet-to-be signed document to signal to the French that as an independent country, their support wouldn't put them at war with Britain.)
Or come back down to earth with a tour of the quaint village of Versailles filled with antique shops and plenty of humble yet distinguished properties for sale. It may inspire making the 18th century “let them eat cake” lifestyle permanent. Butler service and free macarons not included.